As she searched for a response, the football team jogged past, their practice uniforms dirt-caked. Players called out greetings to her, and she couldn’t help noticing a few students giving her the “You go, Ms. Traub” look as they noted D.J.
Their scrutiny embarrassed Allaire, made her too aware of how everyone in the core community would be talking because she was standing here with a man. She knew that behind her back their tongues were already on fire with mention of how she’d utterly failed in marriage. How she’d shamed herself with a divorce. How Allaire Traub née Buckman, an overachiever in her youth, had been expected to do much greater things with her life.
She especially couldn’t bring on more gossip by getting close to her ex’s brother. No doubt it would cause everyone to wonder if she was making a move on the second sibling after messing up with the first.
She could hear it now. The girl’s plowing her way through those Traub boys, isn’t she?
Sure, she knew D.J. was just offering her a job, and that was a separate issue. But the mere thought of opening herself up to speculation was too much. Her life had gotten comfortable lately, so why ruin that?
“I can’t take you up on your offer,” Allaire said to D.J., her heart slowing to a painful throb. “I appreciate it, but you’ll have to find someone else to create that mural.”
As his shoulders slumped, she wished she could tell her old best friend why.
* * *
D.J. felt as if he had been slammed by the world’s largest hammer.
Damn it, he’d hoped that seeing Allaire again wouldn’t be like this. He’d spent half a lifetime running from his unrequited love for her, and he’d actually believed he’d worked her out of his system.
But the second he’d seen her across the parking lot, it was as if no time had passed at all—she was still so beautiful, with her Alice-in-Wonderland hair styled in an artful, spiky bun held together with two of her smaller paintbrushes. Her figure still small and slender, even under the long, bohemian-stitched sweater covering a black turtleneck, a skirt and boots. Her china-blue eyes and porcelain skin.
She was just as he remembered except, now, there were shadows in her gaze. And D.J. knew how they’d gotten there.
His brother could go to hell for hurting her.
Naturally, Allaire would never know how much D.J. resented Dax, both for the divorce as well as for everything that had led up to it. Yes, charming, bad-boy Dax had recognized Allaire’s incredible qualities when he’d been a senior and D.J. and she had been juniors. But, for D.J., falling for Allaire had come much sooner because he’d been smitten ever since grade school, after brainy Allaire had moved up two grades into his own.
She’d always carried herself with an air of maturity, and D.J. had never minded that she was a couple of years younger. Consequently, they’d grown up together, his affection intensifying by the year.
Yet he’d never made a move.
Not with his best friend.
And when Dax moved in it’d been too late. The pair became the school’s royal couple and, even though D.J. had always waited in the wings, telling himself he’d be there when love-’em-and-leave-’em Dax inevitably broke Allaire’s heart with his carelessness, they’d stayed together. In fact, they’d gotten engaged after Allaire’s graduation.
Then, just when D.J.’s heart hadn’t had any pieces left to be broken, she’d asked him to be their best man.
Normally, D.J. wouldn’t have refused her anything, ever, yet this was different. When he’d gracefully tried to get out of the wedding, she’d begged him to reconsider. Like the good guy he was, he’d broken down, then agreed, leaving her none the wiser as to his feelings. Smiling through the ceremony and acting the part of happy brother-in-law had left him with wounds he’d struggled to heal by returning to college at the University of Georgia and creating a life that didn’t include his brother and new wife.
From that point on, it had been too painful for D.J. to return to live in Thunder Canyon, as he’d always planned. Strange, because he’d pictured himself coming back as a man who’d made himself into someone Dax could never be—truly the best man. In D.J.’s mind, he would win Allaire over once she recovered from the rejection he was still sure Dax would deal out. But the marriage had endured, which meant D.J.’s part in Allaire’s life was over.
So he’d stayed in Atlanta and directed his energies to making good on his business degree. He’d become wealthy by first working at a barbecue joint for pocket change, then experimenting with his own recipe for rib sauce.
The rest was history, until Riley Douglas and the gang—Grant, Marshall, Mitchell and Russ—had persuaded him to open a Rib Shack at the resort.
D.J. had resisted at first, recalling how agonizing it had been to see Allaire at his dad’s funeral, even if he had been grateful his brother had had someone to stand by his side and comfort him. However, D.J. had eventually realized that he was over Allaire now, five years later. It was about time, too. So he’d taken his friends up on their offer, returning to Thunder Canyon as a better man than he’d left…
But at this moment, in the aftermath of Allaire’s latest rejection, D.J. realized that maybe he still wasn’t good enough.
As they stood silently on the grass of the high school that had brought so many good times to their lives, D.J. called upon the confidence he had developed as a wildly successful businessman. You didn’t come out here to win over Allaire, you idiot. You came here to hire an artist for the Shack. Don’t take her refusal personally.
Just as their extravagantly tense pause got to the point of absurd, D.J. forced a grin. “Sorry to hear you can’t do it. You were my first choice.”
Always his first choice.
She dug the toe of her boot into the grass, her arms folded over her chest. “I do want to take it on, but it’s…” She exhaled, then looked him in the eye.
It was a shock to his system, one that had never lost its surge.
“Is this about Dax?” he asked gently, hiding his anger with his older brother. He’d become a pro at that early on. “What would he have to say?”
“It’s not what he’d have to say. It’s that I…we might seem…disrespectful, maybe.” She paused. “It might be insensitive of me to spend a lot of time with you when he and I don’t even talk anymore.”
They didn’t talk anymore. That’s what the gang had told D.J., too. Funny how people, whether they were ex-lovers or ex-friends, just retreated when things got too awful to bear. But it didn’t sound like Dax’s style to fade into any background.
Allaire continued. “Sometimes I’ll see him across the Super-Save Mart or on the street. He’s lost his swagger, D.J., and I don’t want to add to that.”
A warped part of D.J. hit on an irony: while in Atlanta, he had gained the confidence Dax must have misplaced. Weirder still, Thunder Canyon seemed to be sucking it right back out of D.J., too.
It gave him no joy to know his brother probably had shadows in his eyes, just like Allaire. D.J. had always hated the part of himself that envied Dax his breezy good looks and charisma, both inherited from their dad and missing from the much more reserved younger son of the family.
There’d only been one time—after Dax had suffered that near-fatal accident—that D.J. had almost let go of his resentment. Seeing Dax out cold on the hospital bed, so weak, had almost dissolved all the years of alienation and hard feelings.
Almost. When the doctor had told D.J. that Dax would be okay, D.J. had left just as secretively as he’d come in, unwilling to put his wounded brother through the distress D.J.’s presence would have